In France if you buy salmon, either fresh or smoked, it will almost always be raised on farms in Scotland or Norway (although there are salmon farms in Normandy and Brittany). Many of these farms are fairly industrial, supplying a modern demand for cheap mass produced 'luxury' food. The salmon are fatty and flavourless because the fish get so little exercise, and they suffer from parasitic lice and other health issues.
Fortunately, for just a few euros more a kilo you can usually get Label Rouge certified salmon at the market or supermarket. This assurance of quality and animal welfare is widely trusted in France. Label Rouge certification is administered by the National Institute for Origin and Quality (known by the acronym INAO, and the same agency that administers the AOC certification) and Scottish salmon was the first product outside of France to achieve the certification.
|Scottish Label Rouge salmon at the market in Preuilly sur Claise.|
The French are world leaders at aquaculture (or pisciculture as they would call it). They've been doing it since the Middle Ages with carp, and today they excel at breeding fingerlings of species such as sea bream, sea bass, trout and pike as well as shellfish production. Label Rouge starts with establishing a benchmark for best practice in the industry, mainly aimed at achieving quality and flavour. In order to achieve this they specify husbandry practices such as stocking rates and rules for leaving seapens fallow. Recently they have been advising the introduction of biological controls such as wrasse to deal with sea lice.
Those with certification must adhere to the best practice guidelines. Others in the industry may aspire (or not) to conform to best practice, depending on whether their aim is quality or quantity. Unfortunately, early salmon farms in Scotland quite literally soiled their own nests. Their working practices meant that esturine and loch life was obliterated due to the salmon farms and their detritus, and the wild salmon caught a variety of diseases and parasites from the farmed stock. When salmon farms were first estabished it was widely reported that for each kilo of farmed salmon 5 kilos of wild industrially harvested fish was required to make the meal and oil they were fed, which was clearly unsustainable and unethical. This legacy may never be fully overcome, but in the past decade or so, those interested in the long-term future of the industry have been genuinely trying.
Label Rouge ensures that best practice is followed by the producers in the scheme. It is true that for each kilo of salmon or trout produced an average of 1.4 kg of wild industrially harvested fish is still required to make fish food. However, this ratio is reducing year on year, and soon much farmed salmon and trout will be eating farmed insects or some other substitute for meal and oil made from wild fish. I have no doubt that Label Rouge is working towards 'their' salmon farms being closed land based systems, which solves the environmental issues by recirculating the water and not disposing of waste into the environment. And it is worth noting that globally, aquaculture produces far more kilos of fish for the table than it consumes in fish meal, because of low or negligible input ratios for products such as oysters, mussels, tilapia and prawns.
If you can't get Label Rouge salmon, then trout is a good alternative. It is nearly half the price, and the farms generally smaller scale, with fewer environmental issues because they are usually closed (recycling) systems these days. Trout farming, using the North American species Rainbow Trout, has been practiced in France since the late 19th century. If you are really concerned about the ethical issues you could start by converting your garden to aquaponics and raise your own trout (using their poo to provide nutrients for your vegetables).
If you balk at the price of smoked salmon or you want a larger quantity than the measly 4 slices in a typical French supermarket pack, then making your own cured salmon or trout is easy. If you are feeling adventurous there is no reason not to home smoke it, but I recommend first timers begin by making gravlax. This is a super simple technique using salt, sugar, fennel seeds and dill, resulting in a delicately flavoured treat.
|Homemade trout gravlax.|
Buy a piece of a large trout fillet weighing between half and one kilo. This will cost you about €17/kilo (compared to about €30/kilo for Label Rouge salmon) and be about two thirds of the head end. Cut it in half from spine to belly and remove all the bones using pointy pliers. Roughly grind a teaspoon of fennel seeds in a mortar. Mix up a quarter cup of curing salt, two tablespoons of brown sugar, two tablespoons of white sugar, the fennel seeds, and some roughly chopped dill (stems included). You can use freeze dried dillweed if fresh is unavailable. Sprinkle a quarter of the mixture on the base of a square glass or ceramic dish. Set one half of the trout skin side down in the dish. Sprinkle the flesh with a half of the curing mixture, pressing it in a bit. Set the other piece of trout on top of the one in the dish, placing it so it is skin side up, thick section against thin section, so the two pieces form a neat shape of even thickness. Sprinkle the fish with the remaining curing mixture and press it down. Cover with clingwrap and nest another dish into the one containing the fish. Weigh it down with a couple of big cans of beans or tomatoes (or whatever you've got in the pantry). Put the whole lot in the fridge.
After 24 hours turn the fish over, recover and replace the weights. After 48 hours it will be ready. Wash all the curing mixture off the fish and dry it thoroughly with kitchen paper. Take a very sharp knife and slice the fish very thinly, taking the flesh off the skin. You will need to make long smooth passes with the knife, and hold it almost flat to get professional looking slices of gravlax.
This recipe is adapted from one on Simply Recipes.